Integrative medicine pioneer, Dr. Sandra Amrita McLanahan, offers these reflections and an inspirational view of spiritual life—or what she terms a “spiritful” life—during this tribute she offered her spiritual teacher (Swami Satchidananda) during the centennial celebrations held in his honor in 2014. (photo l-r: Dr. Michael Lerner, Dr. McLanahan, Swami Satchidananda, Dr. Dean Ornish)
It’s very difficult to summarize 35 years of studying with Swami Satchidananda. I can begin by saying there are three qualities that I think of when I think of Swami Satchidananda, his work, and his legacy. The first is love supreme—just to see his face, his eyes, with the joy and love streaming out. His love never left anybody out. That was the greatness he had. We can all have that, and let’s do that because we are satchidananda: Truth-knowledge-bliss.
The next quality was his laughter. He said laughter is the best medicine. He said that in the name of spirituality nobody should walk around with a castor oil face. Just when he got very serious in a talk he was giving, he would throw something in and make it very funny. Once, I called him up crying; I was sobbing on the phone about a relationship disaster. He said, “Are you going to keep crying?” I said, “Yes, I think so.” He replied, “Good! It’s a kind of pranayama (yogic breathing). It gets all the mucous out,” and then I started laughing.
So, love supreme, laughter, and finally wisdom. Knowledge is infinite. And as I study medicine I have to keep reading all the medical journals because there is always something new in medicine. One day I complained to Gurudev about this. He himself was a naturopath and a homeopath. So much of what I do in medicine I learned from him. He said that western medicine is a very young science. It’s actually only 200 or so years old. But the cobra pose is always the same cobra pose. The shoulder stand is always the same shoulder stand—the basics stay the same, as does wisdom.
Knowledge is infinite and that’s what the Integral Yoga Yantra means: from the One, comes infinite expressions, infinite pathways to the divine. The One is very simple. To be in tune with the One is very simple: Keep the body easeful, so a lot of what we do in the name of Yoga is to keep the body easeful. Keep the mind peaceful, because if the mind is not peaceful we get dis-eased. And if we keep the body easeful and the mind peaceful, then we will be useful and our lives will have meaning. We don’t just want to keep the heart beating. What is your heart beating for? It’s to be useful, to be full of love supreme. That is our true nature.
I want to talk for a few minutes about the health legacy that Gurudev has left us. The essence of Yoga and its practice is to know the One and to love the all. There are lots of practices that help us to know the One and then love the all. If I say that I can love you, and only you, I’m the one that will lose out. It’s our nature to love all. Just watch a three-year old who comes into the room and says hi to everyone and is ready to play with anyone! That’s our beginners mind, our Zen mind. I gave my nephew a chess set to play with when he was two-years-old. I noticed that he was having as much fun playing with the box, as with the pieces. He didn’t distinguish that one is to play with and one is not to play with. He played with everything! And that was Gurudev in essence. He played with everything.
We learned from Gurudev that we are stronger because of our diversity. If we can remember our unity, then we can enjoy the diversity, the variety. That is really the secret of Satchidananda—that in our heart of hearts we are all the same. That which is looking out at me, is looking out at you. So, since there is only one of us, we might as well relax and that is actually the essence of Vedanta. Everything is all connected. Physics says that we come from the big bang. Everything was One in the beginning. They actually recorded a sound that came before the big bang and it’s called the big bang bang. In the beginning, everything was One and it was boring so it decided to appear as many.
When I was growing up, physics said that it was all about particles; the nucleus was in the middle and there were the electrons and protons and it was all in empty space. That was kind of a lonesome vision of the universe! Now, they have refined their ideas and they say that those particles are only there if you look for them, but the essence of the universe is waves. And the waves are connected as they signal “hi” to one another just as we do with our hands when we greet one another. We are all one thing. We are one consciousness; satchidananda consciousness.
The physicist says that a butterfly cannot flap its wings in Delhi, India, without creating a breeze in New York City. Our strength lies in that truth, in our similarities, and in seeing the oneness, the divine spark in each other. That’s what Namaste means: I honor the divine within you. In fact, you can see that in people’s eyes. In the embryo, the eyes are actually made out of the brain. The brain makes eyes out of itself. So, I’m really looking at your brain when I look into your eyes! That’s why you can tell what a person is thinking by looking into their eyes, not by looking at the hand or the foot, but right at the eyes. And what do you see shining back? It’s a mirror. This is so clear in children and pets. If you love them, pretty soon they mirror that back. With adults it takes a little longer. But our essence is the same.
Part of our Yoga practice, in terms of health, is mindful decision making. We make decisions all the time that either keep us more healthy or less healthy. That word mindful means, keeping yourself aware of what you are doing with your mind. Even more than mindful, I like the word, spiritful. If we connect to our spiritfulness, then we can enjoy the show. We can enjoy the changes but at the same time, remember the eternal; that which doesn’t change. Physics also says that none of us are going anywhere anyway because E= MC squared. This means that the forms will vary but the essence or the amount stays the same. So, we can all be peaceful in that essence itself.
My dad left his body about 6 months after Gurudev’s Mahasamadhi. After my dad died, I had an experience where he came and talked to me. He told me that he was talking to Swami Satchidananda on the other side, and that he was a pretty big deal over there. My dad said that he was going to tell me what enlightenment is. He said, enlightenment is the quality you saw in me, as I was serving in the role of “dad.” It is the qualities of God that you saw in me, and if you see rightly, you will see those qualities everywhere, shining behind the vehicles that we are riding in.
Mindful decision-making takes place in the frontal cortex and regular meditation changes the shape of the cortex and that’s the part of the brain that is smallest in teenagers, which is why we need to teach our teenagers to meditate. It’s the part of the brain that is blotted out by alcohol and makes people do crazy things when they are under the influence. Science is now revealing what Swami Satchidananda first began teaching in the late 1960s in the West: the healing power of Yoga and a healthy lifestyle. When I first started practicing medicine, Sri Gurudev said to me, “A Yoga doctor first looks at diet because that way you can help the body to heal—if you give it the right nutrients.
We now know that vegetarian and vegan diets help to keep the mind calm. Researchers did a study at Harvard with some vegetarians. Those who ate animal products not only had an increase in blood pressure and cholesterol but an increase in anxiety as well. When animals are killed they secrete fear hormones and when we eat them, we are ingesting those hormones.
Dr. Dean Ornish and I worked together for many years, starting with the prevention and even the reversal of heart disease through what we learned from Swami Satchidananda about Yoga and lifestyle medicine. No one in the medical or scientific communities believed that we would get anywhere—that would could prove what Swami Satchidananda was teaching us about these ancient practices. We now know the heart has a great capacity to heal. In our research, there was a 75 percent reversal of heart disease by following a program of Yoga. Today, it’s commonly accepted in scientific circles that somebody who has had multiple heart attacks can heal as a result of Yoga practices. And, finally, insurance companies—even Medicare—are covering lifestyle medicine due to the research and advocacy work of Dr. Ornish and the inspiration of Swami Satchidananda.
About the Author:
Sandra Amrita McLanahan, M.D., is a nationally recognized authority on preventive medicine, nutrition, stress reduction and primary family health care. As Director of Stress Management Training at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute for twenty years, she worked with Dr. Dean Ornish to document the benefits of dietary change and stress management to prevent and treat cardiovascular disease and cancer. Dr. McLanahan is the author of the book Surgery and its Alternatives: How to Make the Right Choices for Your Health and is the medical consultant for the book, Dr. Yoga.